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Conflict on the Campus—1952


Back when I was a boy it was a fashion in the Adventist press to embed Bible studies in stories. Pacific Press badged theirs “Stories that Win.” And they did. Perhaps you remember The Marked Bible by Charles Lindsay Taylor, still in print in the millions of copies, or Frank Steunenberg’s Greater Love, about assassin-turned-Adventist Harry Orchard.

R.E. Finney, Jr. was another of these Bible-study storytellers, better known for a slim romance targeted at young women called Judy Steps Out. I wasn’t aware of Finney’s Conflict on the Campus until I found a copy in a local church library.

The cool cover artwork—a young man getting into a ’38 sedan driven by a rosy-cheeked young woman—caught my attention. And the title, of course. Conflict on Adventist campuses has dominated the church conversation for the last several years, and the topic is the same as it was for Red Bartlett of Valleyville in 1952: origins. But it was a gentler conflict back then, mostly in Red’s heart rather than between professors, boards, students, and administrators, and it’s entirely resolved by page 90 when Red sees that evolution isn’t the answer and the Bible is, so he can at last marry his Seventh-day Adventist sweetheart, Nan Brooks.

Red and Nan meet when she stops to offer him a ride (a lone girl picking up a hitchhiker—surely a different era) and they feel a mutual attraction. They find they go to the same high school where, over lunch, Nan gives Red Bible studies about the signs of the end. Red is impressed by her interpretations of prophecy, but to Nan’s disappointment he can’t get past what he’s learned from his teachers about the evolution of life on earth. Fortunately Nan is able to talk Red into attending a Seventh-day Adventist college (“Central College”) after graduation, where Mr. Ingram, his faculty advisor, shows Red that the Bible’s account of origins makes more sense than the evolutionary one.

One wonders what the denouement would have been if Nan’s “wide gray eyes set in a softly rounded face” weren’t a factor, but never mind that: their courteous, old-fashioned romance is a charming feature of the story. Nan likes Red, though naturally there’s never any question of his being more than a casual friend unless he becomes a Seventh-day Adventist—a different era, indeed.

The fictional Mr. Ingram instructs Red with versions of arguments we still use. The necessary First Cause, for example: “It makes no difference what you consider to have been the first step in creation, nor how far back into prehistoric time you push the event. There must have been a Creator to bring into being the creation” (56).

Another familiar argument is that so complex a design demands there be a designer. On the way Ingram/Finney mucks about unnecessarily in spontaneous generation (which he suggests is almost what evolutionists teach), but eventually he gets around to the extremely high odds against life’s adventitious origin:

“Let us consider the chance of the coming into being by chance of a single molecule of protein. … Using a molecule of simple structure, with a molecular weight of 20,000, and imagining it to be composed of only two kinds of atoms (actually, there are always at least four), let us consider the probabilities. It has been pointed out by scientists that for the chance construction of one such molecule we would have to imagine a volume of material more than one sextillion sextillion sextillion times greater than the universe of Einstein.…[and] we need not one molecule, but hundreds of millions of them exactly alike (72).

I’ll leave the verification of those figures to you scientists, but the idea that life could come about by random chemical combinations is one that troubles us non-scientists. Those who see God’s hand in the evolution of life have an answer for that, yet it seems a short step from God seeding DNA on this earth and helping it evolve, to God not being needed at all.

Then there are the missing links. Ingram says, “The thing that puzzles honest scientists about [fossils] is that they are unable to find any links between these stages of evolution, although the process is claimed to have taken fifty million years and one might well expect to find thousands of such intermediary skeletons” (75). Here, too, I’ve some sympathy for Professor Ingram, for it seems to us non-scientists that if evolution were as painstakingly gradual and extended as Darwin said it was, the ground would be littered with the fossils of those incremental steps, not to mention of trillions of dead ends.

Yet when he comes to what should be the heart of his argument, Ingram/Finney appears not to understand the basic mechanisms of natural selection, and so (though not unusual among apologists, unfortunate) addresses his own caricatures of evolutionary science. When talking about passing along qualities from one generation to the next, he reminds us, apropos of nothing in the Darwinian theory, that docking lambs’ tails for generations doesn’t lead to the birth of short-tailed lambs. He suggests that evolutionary changes would be hindrances that the creature would have to learn to overcome—as though legs suddenly sprouted out the bottom of a fish that could then figure out something to use them for. Of lepidoptera that imitate unpalatable species, he asks, “Shall we credit the moth with powers of observation that enabled it millenniums ago to see that the other moth escaped being eaten because of its strong flavor? If it could so observe and so reason, what could it do about it? In the meantime, who guaranteed its survival long enough to adapt itself to looking like the original moth? When was the transformation first complete enough to guarantee the moth its uncertain immunity? How shall we explain the reasoning powers of this ephemeral insect and also explain the stupidity of the bird of prey in not detecting the counterfeit?”

This last is silly and a little embarrassing, and all I can suggest that might make his confusion forgivable is that scientists do sometimes talk about evolution as though it were a willful process. Saying, for example, “This water creature then evolved legs and began to venture unto dry land,” might sound to someone like a decision rather than a lengthy series of genetic accidents.

The book’s title is hyperbole, for there’s really very little conflict on the campus of Central College: no secret recordings, accusations of heresy, firings, inflammatory web sites, accreditation threats, or angry board meetings. Red accepts each of Mr. Ingram’s explanations as sound, and moves on to the next. Both Red and Mr. Ingram evince a touching concern for intellectual truthfulness: Red finds Mr. Ingram “one fellow who looks as though he had a head on his shoulders,” and Mr. Ingram makes sure Red knows that he can be both intellectually honest and a believer: “Belief can only be built on a reasonable foundation and a desire” (52).

We Adventists sowed the seeds of the current controversy a century ago when we innocently partnered higher education with our conservative Biblical faith. At the time we may have thought our beliefs could stand up to scientific investigation—that honest research would always, eventually, lead back home. Conflict on the Campus is how we might have imagined it would look: capable, intellectually honest academics with simple yet compelling explanations, convincing to anyone who will listen, that our literal reading of the first few pages of Genesis was scientifically defensible.

And so we taught our children science (at least partially to do the work of physical healing, for which we were becoming renowned) and were surprised and unnerved when big moral, spiritual and existential questions raised by science began knocking on our doors. We found that when our beliefs were threatened it was difficult to have open-minded discussions. Investigation was fine as long as it confirmed our doctrines, but that didn’t happen every time. Rather than taking the contrary evidence head on and admitting its difficulty, we fell back on a few research papers and bus tours, and questioning the questioners’ faith. So here we are today, and the conflict on campus is more serious now than it was in 1952, with careers, institutions and possibly souls, at stake.

I sympathize with those of you so immersed in a scientific world that it’s impossible for you to study or to pursue your vocation without bumping up hard against the prevailing narrative. I hear your questions, but I don’t have ideal answers. I believe that God created the universe. I believe that He is quite powerful enough to have done the job in six consecutive days. I can read Genesis 1 to you to prove it. Yet when you ask complex geological, biological and anthropological questions—how to explain those layered fossil series, or the bone fragments from Olduvai Gorge, or evidence of extremely long time periods—I know just enough to know I’m out of my depth. I try to find Bible-believing scientists to refer you to, though I admit I sometimes find their offerings more polemical than convincing.

Conflict on the Campus makes me nostalgic for a time when the difficulties Bible believers face seemed easy to solve, when the question of origins could be answered in a 100 page book with room left over for courtship and a wedding. We have a lot more information now, but less peace of mind.

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